The 1733 Guarneri violin formerly owned by Fritz Kreisler is one of the most beautiful musical instruments in the world -- creamy and rich, deep and mellow in tone, and capable of great brilliance in its upper register. It seems to be at its best when it is used in the Viennese style of its famous former owner, lingering voluptuously on a sustained note and then rushing impetuously through the next passage as though half-ashamed of its self-indulgence; sliding into a note rather than landing dead center; pausing as though to sigh or catch its breath at crucial points in a phrase.
For 30 years this violin has been the property of the Library of Congress, which received it from Kreisler and has preserved it with loving care. For last night's concert in the Coolidge Auditorium, the Library entrusted it to Japanese violinist Takaya Urakawa, a former Suzuki student and former prodigy who sometimes sounds like a reincarnation of Kreisler.
The program included some very serious music -- most notably the brilliant Sonata for Solo Violin composed by Barto'k near the end of his life and the American premiere of "Asura" for solo violin by the Japanese composer Ryohei Hirose, a work inspired by the great Barto'k opus but distinctly Eastern in many of its idioms and enormously more demanding in its technique.
Urakawa played these demanding works brilliantly, as he did the youthful, brightly inventive and melodious Sonata in F Minor of Felix Mendelssohn. The Hirose work was particularly fascinating, calling for virtually every special technique available to a violinist -- even the percussive sound made when the bow taps the strings rather than rubbing them. At first it sounded more like a vocabulary exercise than a well-rounded statement; then, as it progressed, its disjunct technical devices took on form and expressiveness. Urakawa fulfilled all of its hair-raising technical demands with complete aplomb and brought out its inner coherence effectively.
But all of this music -- great, near-great, technically dazzling and fresh to the ears -- was overshadowed last night by the six short Kreisler pieces that concluded the program: "Rondino on a Theme by Beethoven," "Scho n Rosmarin," "Liebesleid," "Liebesfreud," "Tambourin chinois" and "Caprice viennois." These pieces are not soul-stirring in the way of Beethoven or even of Rachmaninoff; they plumb no depths of the spirit and offer only a limited range of flavors -- various modes of sweetness, for the most part. All that can be said in their favor is that they are perfect; they have the kind of perfection that is possible only in small compositions with modest artistic pretensions.
They present to the performer a special challenge, because anyone who is curious about how they should sound can hear them definitively performed on the composer's records. In last night's performance, Takaya Urakawa met that challenge so superbly that one is tempted to fantasize about the violin: Perhaps the spirit of Kreisler still inhabits it, or the violin gave its owner his unique appeal. But no marvels of tone can account for the dynamics and phrasing that were heard last night. Urakawa has obviously studied this music (including the composer's recordings) in the most minute detail, and he is fortunate enough to have as his accompanist Franz Rupp, who used to be Kreisler's accompanist.
Whatever the reasons, last night's concert was stylistically perfect, as though Kreisler were playing his own music again.